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  • Writer's pictureEmily Hamel

Pro Tips for First-Timers... (at Kentucky's 5*)

Recently, I was trying a horse at Courtney Cooper's barn for a client and had a chat with her that sparked the idea for this post. You see, I used to work for Courtney many moons ago, and she introduced me to what upper-level eventing was all about. I did two working student stints with her and my lovely ISH, Grenadier Guard, who Courtney helped me take from Training to Intermediate. Since that time, I've had different horses, used other trainers, lived in multiple states, but she has always been quietly cheering me on, and I know I wouldn't be where I am today without her initial guidance. Fast forward to present-day me, and I am now officially entered in my first 5*. After I was done trying Courtney's horse, she took me aside and gave me a Kentucky pep talk/life lesson in her no-nonsense but also encouraging way. She said...

"First at several times during the weekend, take a quiet moment by yourself or with your horse and reflect...reflect on the horses who aren't here who made you the rider you are, the people who helped you and gave you a leg up (figuratively and literally) on your journey, the people and the stories that inspired you and be grateful for them, your current support system, your current mount and take it all in because regardless of what happens this weekend you have accomplished a huge milestone.

Then remember you have done all of this before; the dressage ring is the same 20 x 60 meter ring you have worked in for years. My advice, keep your head focused on that ring until your final salute and then look up and appreciate what you have accomplished. The same goes for Sunday. You have jumped around some impressive tracks. The same will be true at Kentucky. It's just sand and jumps!

The last bit of advice is more practical have someone film the live feed in the 10 minute box. I wish I had mine..."

Courtney on Who’s A Star

Grateful for these wise words and feeling inspired, I decided to go on a mission to collect more intel about riding at Kentucky for the first time. Since there will be quite a few newbies in 2021, I thought it would be beneficial to give some insight and encouragement to the riders. So I sought advice from various 5* riders and friends who have been there, done that, and were willing to share their top tips about riding at Kentucky. The advice ranged from motivational to actionable, with some pretty clear overarching themes.

Our first piece of advice comes from veterinarian to the stars and previous 5* rider, Dr. Kevin Keane.

(Click to hear his advice)

Social media maven who has been around Kentucky a time or two, Lainey Ashker, has this to say, "It's easy to drive into the Kentucky Horse Park wide-eyed and awestruck if you're attending as a spectator, let alone a competitor. From the abundant publicity, the all-encompassing trade fair, literally the world's best and most boisterous crowds (unfortunately some of these things won't be the case this year), to the ornately decorated cross country course our country has to offer, The Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event's "larger than life" reputation precedes itself. However, here's a public service announcement for all the riders tackling their first Kentucky: Don't give it that much credit (initially). It will be easy to want to change your plans when you see the top foreign riders warming up their horse a certain way; stick to your own plan for it's what got you there in the first place. Depending on your draw for XC, watch a handful of rides in the rider’s tent or live who you want to emulate then put those demons to bed. Always remember this too is just another horse show with the same blue numbers that you have been accustomed to riding for the past few years. Trust your coach, trust your horse, and most importantly, trust YOURSELF. With that being said, soak up the experience, enjoy the electric crowd (even if it's just a handful of people this year), and take each day as it comes. You've finally made it to the most elite level of this sport and that my friends IS the top prize!!! The best is yet to come!"

Seasoned 5* rider Hannah Sue Burnett offers this, "I have a lot of amazing memories at Kentucky, and although this year will be different without spectators, it will still be the most amazing experience for everyone lucky enough to gallop across the bluegrass—and especially those doing it for the first time! I would say to first-timers to take it all in and enjoy it. All the hard work, for so many years has actually paid off and you made it to a 5*! Even if it doesn't go perfectly, enjoy every moment you can and learn from the rest. Good luck!"

A fellow midwestern and hard-working girl that I greatly admire, Meghan O'Donoghue, offers this down-to-earth guidance, "Stay in the moment; it's a "one step at a time" kind of experience. Take time to enjoy it; half the battle is just getting there. Acknowledge your village; no one gets there alone(your horse is the MVP)!"

Looking across our northern border for more info, some of the Canadian contingents had this to share...

"Treat it like any other show and enjoy every minute because who knows when you get to do it again."

-Colleen Loach

"I like to walk the course a lot. Especially if I'm burning time and getting nervous, it helps me feel proactive and more prepared. I know every step of the way on cross country. My first time there I took in the sights at the horse park. Love the hall of fame best."

-Selena O'Hanlon

One of my favorite riders to watch cross country and who represents Ireland, Tim Bourke, offers this, "The piece of advice that always holds true for me is that you know your horse better than anyone. Stick with your gut instincts, try not to get too caught up in the moment, and listen to too many people. You obviously have someone that has helped you in the past that knows you and your horse and can give you good advice. Try sticking to the same recipe that got you this far. Just enjoy every minute of it; it's why we do this sport."

Dressage queen and fierce competitor Tamie Smith shares this, "Treat it like it's just another horse show and try not to take yourself too seriously. Caring too much is usually a detriment to competitiveness. Make sure you stay focused. It's easy to get wowed by all the excitement going on but enjoy every moment - try and stop each day and take in the fact you've made it to what you've been working for your entire career. There might be one or two fences that don't seem jumpable, don't worry, they are!! Surround yourself with a small support group that helps you stay focused and happy. Don't let it get too big; this is about you and your horse. Kick some ass and enjoy galloping across that bluegrass!!!"

Last but not least, a man who needs no introduction, but I will give it to him anyway. Previous winner at Kentucky, who holds multiple Olympic medals, been a staple on the US Eventing Team, and my long-time coach Phillip Dutton was kind enough to share his thoughts. In true Phillip form, which is straightforward and to the point, he leaves us with this, "Believe in yourself and your horse. It's not a coincidence that you made it here it's all of the years of work you put in up to this point." Mic drop! Photo.

So to all my fellow first-timers, I hope this leaves you feeling inspired and ready to take on your first 5*. We've worked hard to get here, and it's our time to shine. Let this be the year of the rookies, and enjoy the ride!

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